by JoJo
Josiah would like a lovely Spring day to be... uncomplicated. Also fills Bingo prompt "clean clothes".

It was fine to be alone, the preacher often thought. Safeguarding thoughts and... staying out of the way. Philosophical enlightenment didn't always go hand-in-hand with these odd friends of his. Or the messes they got themselves into. Purity of purpose, he also suspected in his more Old Testament moments, rarely came from hanging about with them in the saloon engaging in idle chatter.

Besides, keeping himself to himself when he had the chance gave him clarity of thought. It was a good way to live, to keep the demons off his back.

The Spring air smelled sweet when he poked his head out of the church. Josiah had ever been susceptible to the romance of the season, its rash of new beginnings. And the blue of the sky and fresh scents riding on the wind seemed to confirm everything he thought - a very fine day to be alone. Even the prospect of it cleared his head of last night's liquor, made everything seem more straightforward.

Mind you, this fellowship he'd fallen into could be its own touchstone. There were times it had proved an absolute as strong as any Josiah had yet discovered in his long years of searching. Although the disadvantages too often outweighed the joys it could certainly be an irresistible force--driving them into each other's company at times with all the raucous momentum of a stagecoach team pursued by bandits. But mostly the magnetism didn't exert nearly the same pull to him as solitude.

Like today, for example, when the pleasant monotony of life took precedence and some greater calling beckoned him. Standing on the steps, looking and listening for a while, Josiah was suffused with a certain peace. Far as he could see, there were no dubious strangers wandering the street, no voices being raised anywhere in threat or discontent.

Nope, there was none of that today. His own company would be sufficient, thank the Lord. No brushes with Death to be excised from the collective psyche. Nobody's mad relief to be calmed, or self-disgust hastily strangled and pickled in liquor. As far as Josiah was aware there was no news, bad or good, that called for a mustering of the troops.

Hell, it wasn't even lunchtime.

So, when he peered into the saloon in passing and saw four of their number glued around a table, he felt no immediate desire to connect. The very opposite in fact. He had solitary jobs to do, weighty books to read. He didn't need gossip or japes muddying his clear water. Neither did he need coffee, which Nathan and Ezra obviously did, judging by the defensive grip they had on their cups. And although a swift shot of liquor was always welcome, he didn't have a hankering for beer right now, unlike Buck whose mug was, as always, either half empty or half full.

Josiah could tell from a swift look that they were talking about nothing. Nothing very important, at least. The kind of conversation about nothing very important that would ramble around the table in no particular direction, starting from nothing and ending with nothing, leaving nobody any the wiser. Not until later anyhow.

There was an interesting air of intrigue about the gathering though. It did pique Josiah's curiosity. They were focused, in a relaxed kind of a way, on Buck in this instance. An air of good-humored skepticism hung around J.D., Nathan didn't look disapproving and Ezra wasn't dripping condescension as his cards flickered between his hands. There had to be something neither too worrying nor too mindless at the heart of it.

Perhaps something... interesting?

Josiah hesitated, because there really was no need to go in. Jobs to do, he reminded himself, books to read. He had enough interesting of his own to keep him going for days and he was looking forward to immersing himself in it. Despite that, somehow he was unable to move his feet. The ripple of the familiar voices bounced back and forth inside the saloon, the words unclear. The sound was comforting in its own way, but also filled him with a sense of apprehension. Or was it anticipation?

Letting his eyes stray briefly to the Heavens, he found his hand on the batwing, gave it a push.

Buck glanced up in mid-speech when he heard the hinge creak, but he didn't stop, although he did acknowledge the newcomer with a wave of his mug.

"No, no, no, no, no," he was saying as Josiah drew near, came to a halt at the next table. "I'm telling you, it's true, plain as the nose on your face."

"Afternoon, Josiah," J.D. acknowledged him, rightfully respectful before announcing, "You don't know beans, Buck!"

Buck bristled. "Just 'cause I ain't suffered from it, don't mean I can't recognize the symptoms."

"Man don't have the plague," Nathan commented mildly. He seemed content with the conversation, prepared to enjoy it for the time being.

"Well hell, Ezra, you're a man of the world," Buck stated robustly, suddenly swinging his gaze across the table, indicating Standish with another beer-slopping wave of his mug. "You must have been there and back more than once."

"Thankfully," Ezra said, hardly raising his eyes from his cards, "Such messy affliction is entirely outside the sphere of my experience."

Buck frowned at him, looked as if he was deciding whether to challenge that assertion or leave it alone. Nathan, however, nudged Buck's elbow, brought him back to what he evidently thought was the point in hand.

"What are these symptoms anyhow? Seeing you're so expert?"

Much as he disliked tittle-tattle Josiah was unable at that point to stop himself butting in.

"Who are we talking about?"


"What about Vin? He sickening for something?"

"Buck reckons he's in love." It was J.D. who answered the questions, apparently lacking in either qualms or discretion.

There was an alarmed silence then, as if something entirely inappropriate had been said aloud in the wrong company.

Josiah squinted into the middle distance across the saloon before pursing his lips. Vin? In love? He didn't know what caused him most pause for thought. The fact that the others were talking about such a topic at all, albeit in a rather mindless and roundabout way, or that Vin Tanner was the object of their discussion.

Buck had the good grace to look embarrassed at the subject matter in hand, given that Josiah was the preacher and all. But then, seeing the expectant looks being leveled at him, Wilmington leaned forward, conspiratorial. "Clean shirt," he said, as if that explained all. "Hell, clean everything, and not just 'cause it's that day of the week. Got kind of a twinkle in his eye when he thinks you ain't lookin' at him. Else he's starin' into space like he's gone simple."

"Of course," Ezra murmured, "that might not be love. That might just be..."

"Bullshit!" Buck was dismissive. "I ain't talkin about sex. Hell, you can practically smell it when a man's havin' good sex. This is different."

Ezra rolled his eyes, but Nathan encouraged Buck to elucidate, which he gladly did.

"Any fool looks and acts like a goddamn simpleton for an hour or two after gettin' his… after a good time between the sheets... but this. Man's off his oats. Oh yes. Ain't sleepin' good by the look of him either. Distracted as all get-out one minute, too goddamned well pleased with himself the next. I'm tellin' you..."

"So who is it?" J.D. said. "If you're so clever. I mean, I ain't seen him with nobody since..." A blush rose on his cheeks but he ploughed on gamely. "... since that time."

The image of Vin cantering about in the wilderness with another man's wife popped into Josiah's mind and he winced.

"That time would be enough to put a man off love for life."

He spoke with feeling, given that more than one of them had been blind-sided by dubious motivations on that particular occasion. Buck raised a brow at him and then attempted to make eye contact with Ezra but Ezra studiously ignored him.

Josiah would have liked to have expounded some more on the nature of love then, since he had quite a lot to say on the subject and it was the perfect time of year, but the others were mostly still interested in Buck.

Wilmington disappointed them, however. He shrugged, tugged at his mustache in thought. "Now the who of it I couldn't tell you." He sighed. "Sure would like to know though."

"I don't reckon there's a who anyway, Buck." J.D. was still wagging his head. "I reckon you're wrong."

Josiah expected Ezra to suggest laying a wager at that point, bandying names about with scant regard for reputations or feelings. Not a word passed his lips however. Instead he retained a faintly bored expression, let his attention wander out of the window as if looking for something more appealing to consider.

Buck wasn't quite finished worrying this bone, although Josiah thought probably he should be. "Maybe I'll ask him," he said. "Maybe I just will."

"Wouldn't advise it," a new voice put in and the whole table started. Larabee had come up on them from the back. His deadpan but cautionary tone suggested he'd heard enough to know what they were discussing and wasn't too happy about it. He nailed Buck with a look that could have reduced a lesser man to ashes.

The eternal crackle between the two of them was almost audible, just for a brief second, their long, chaotic friendship and the heat of things known only to themselves. But then Buck laughed at him, easy.

"You don't think old Vin would like us meddlin' in his affairs?"

"I don't."

He never did have to say too much in order to let them know exactly what the thought. Chris cast an eye around the whole table. Ezra's shoulders immediately stiffened in offended reaction, as if he'd been singled out somehow, and J. D. looked chastened. Nathan just stared straight back at him.

"Nobody's going to go around askin' anybody anythin' about being in love," Larabee said. "Is that clear?" When there was no immediate answer he turned his head slowly to Josiah.

"What do you think, preacher?"

"Well," Josiah said. He wanted to quote Proverbs at them, something lofty about gossip and the separating of friends, but the Good Book seemed almost trite in this instance. Not to mention downright dangerous with Chris glowering at him so fierce.

"He ain't the one to ask!" Buck announced, rather rudely. Josiah guessed it wasn't time to repeat that what he didn't know about women wasn't worth knowing. He felt irritated and un-nerved in equal measure. Like he wanted to pursue the whole matter, for reasons he couldn't even justify to himself, and yet get the hell out as fast as he could. And then, right deep down inside he had another thought.

If a man was in love, well then... you had to at least be glad about it, didn't you? Depending on who it was, of course.

"You may be right," he said eventually, answering Buck for both his last comment and for the notion as a whole.

"Good." Chris was clipped. "Glad we've sorted that out. Need one of you over at the jailhouse in five minutes."

He skirted round Josiah, eyes firmly on the street, and shoved through the batwings.

Buck shook his head to himself, buried his nose in his mug. J.D. was perking up again but he didn't have any more to say. There was the distinct air that this conversation had run its course and would be best replaced by something safer to do with food or horses.

"We'll get to know all in good time I guess," Nathan decided, evidently not quite ready for that. "If there's anything to get to know about it of course. What do you reckon, Ezra?"

"Huh," Ezra muttered and Josiah was un-nerved all over again.

Why was the damned gambler so tight-lipped about it, for crying out loud? Normally Ezra was first in line--and not always very kindly--to help stir up mischief. Just so long as he wasn't the one being targeted, of course. And Chris... he'd seemed particularly sharp-tongued, despite the boggling lack of specifics on the table.

Josiah lifted a hand to his head and rubbed it, hoping for some clarity. His thoughts felt vague and indistinct. Vexation grumbled in his belly, a dissatisfaction that the purity of the day had been sullied. He should have known better than to come in here. Indeed, he did know better. What foolish temptation had presented itself out of the day's blue-sky promise, led him towards the very thing he knew he should be avoiding? Instead of straightforward, things suddenly seemed a jumble of unanswered questions. There was a puzzle here. He could almost figure it out, but not quite.

Perhaps some good time alone would help.

"You stayin' for a beer, Josiah?"

He blinked at J.D's question. Like the kid, Nathan was open-faced and welcoming, and it warmed Josiah's heart momentarily. Next to him at the table Ezra was worrying his cards once more, with some discontent. Buck had pushed his chair back and stumped towards the bar, hailing Inez with a smile wide as the Ganges. Josiah could guess exactly what he was likely to say to her. She'd play along, too. Inez enjoyed tying Buck up in knots, and he seemed to find the inevitable rejections a delicious incentive.

There was no sense that they'd just been asked for assistance. Nobody was rushing to fulfill Chris's barked request, so Josiah figured maybe he should.

Even though it was exactly what he didn't want to be doing today.

"Perhaps later," he hedged.

J. D. shrugged and Nathan lifted his coffee cup in farewell.

Leaving a light buzz of conversation behind him, Josiah pushed out the doors into the sunlight, and then headed down the steps and on to the street. A faint waft of tobacco smoke followed him. Out here his nose was tickled with pollen, then assailed with the odor of horse manure sitting in a fresh pile on the corner.

He charted a reluctant course across the street towards the jailhouse, suddenly aware of the amount of traffic charging up and down. Dust flew up from under the churning wheels of a wagon being driven at a healthy lick right across his path. Letting it pass, eyes averted from the clouds of grit, he set off once more.

And nearly slammed straight into the casually striding figure of Vin Tanner coming down the street from the other direction.

"Easy there," Vin said, hand outstretched to avoid the collision. "We got an emergency?"

Josiah caught the flash of wry blue amusement under the hat.

"Chris askin' for help," was all he said, trying hard not to give Tanner a too-obvious look up and down.

Vin glanced behind them at the jailhouse, weighing something up. Whether to go in himself, perhaps. Backing Chris up came as natural to him as breathing, after all, but there was the smallest quirk of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Pleasure, mischief... Josiah couldn't quite work it out.

"I don't believe it's an emergency." Josiah was pleased to find his own wryness wasn't lost under a tide of confusion. "He just wants to make sure we're... gainfully employed."

"I'll leave you to it you then, Josiah." Vin grinned outright then. He seemed in a good mood. "I'm headed for a beer. You c'n tell Chris I'll catch him later."

"Well all right then."

Josiah chanced a good look then at what Vin was wearing. Analyzing the evidence on the basis of Buck's theory he couldn't really say if the clothes were unnaturally clean. Tanner didn't routinely spend a small fortune at the laundry like Buck and Ezra. But while he carried a whole lot of the desert around with him most of the time, in town he was generally tidy enough. The shirt Josiah could see under the hide coat and bandanna was maybe one he hadn't seen before. The pants under the tied-down mare's-leg were the usual pale fawn, but not, perhaps, the usual canvas. Vin's hat was brushed clean of its habitual dust, which Josiah supposed was some kind of a departure from the norm, and his chin seemed smoother than usual. Which come to think of it, Josiah didn't think he'd seen before, not at this hour of the day, for no particular reason.

"'nother problem?" Vin asked, eyes crinkling up, either in a frown or in further amusement, Josiah couldn't tell.

"No, no."

Vin shrugged. He cocked his head over the street. "Anyone in the saloon?"

"Indeed." Josiah was not sure if it was the ideal time for Vin to go and join them but he had no clue how to say so, or even if he should.

But in any case, he shouldn't worry. Really. It was all so much hooey, as J.D. had probably already said, more than once. Of course it was. Josiah didn't want to consider it anymore. He wanted his clean thoughts back. His eyes strayed back to Vin.

Clean thoughts, clean clothes.

"Ezra?" Vin asked.

Confusion bloomed in Josiah's chest. Of course Ezra was there. Where else would Ezra be?

"He owe you money?"

"Hell no, I don't give him the chance."

"Well Buck's over there too. J.D., Nathan."

Vin nodded vaguely at the information, and then smiled again. He tipped his hat as he passed, moving off over the street. Josiah remained where he was, not exactly sure what they'd just been talking about.

His thoughts were still a jumble when he pushed open the jailhouse door, found Chris sorting boxes of bullets without much enthusiasm. He looked up suspiciously when Josiah entered.

"You said you needed help?"

"Help? No I don't need help. Just tryin' to stop all the stupid talk. 'fore someone got flattened. Or worse."

"Right." Josiah sighed, wondering if this meant he could leave, go and find something simpler to think on. Chris didn't say anything else, just rattled the desk drawer once and then shut it with a bang. "Vin said he'd catch you later."


The head snapped up again, eyes narrowed.

Josiah gestured over his shoulder. "I just ran into him. He's headed over to the saloon. Said he'd uh...."

"Catch me later?"

Vin had said that. Those had been his words. Somehow they didn't seem the right words, or the best words. Josiah wasn't sure. Chris was mulling them anyway, fingers trickling over the boxes open on the desk. He muttered something but Josiah didn't catch what it was.

He backed out of the jailhouse. On the street he swept off his hat, stood for a moment trying to get back in touch with Spring. And his hopefulness. His eyes strayed back over the street towards the Saloon when he heard the sound of feminine laughter.

Vin hadn't gone in yet. He was standing on the corner of the boardwalk talking to Mary Travis, all aproned and inky, who had a bunch of newsprint in her hands. Her pretty ivory teeth were showing and her eyes were bright as gems.

The batwings slapped robustly as Vin disappeared inside. Josiah turned, belly tingling all the more, an effect Mrs. Travis often had upon him. He headed back towards the church. It seemed like the best place to go. He'd said he'd call on Mrs. Potter, speak to her about ordering in some needlepoint to cover the kneelers, but now he felt like he needed to close his doors against the world for a while.

When he got to the church, he turned to look down the street again, hoping to feel its peace once more. Back towards the jailhouse all was quiet. Then he became aware someone had emerged from the Saloon, only a half a minute after Vin went in. It was Ezra, who stood outside and tugged his jacket straight with some irritation, brushed something from one shoulder, and then rubbed his chin as if deciding what to do next. Then, with a furtive look around him, he spun around and headed for… well, Josiah didn't rightly know.

Where and why and what did it matter?

He waited for a second, almost expecting something else to happen. Nothing did. Josiah pressed a hand to his head as he labored up the steps into his sanctuary. Really he'd hoped he would understand something - anything - a little better today. That was his eternal hope. Instead, his friends had somehow made everything more complicated. As they were inclined to do.

Someone around here knew a damn sight more than they were saying.

But who, and quite about what, Josiah just couldn't tell.